“Speaking, when you have something to say, is like looking.
But who looks? If people could see properly,
and see whole, they would all be painters.
And it’s because people have no idea how to look
that they hardly ever understand.” – Pierre Bonnard
When we teach classes indoors, we often set up a very simple still-life for the class to work from. Under the subterfuge of offering a painting class, we’re really trying to train students how to see as an artist. Seeing anything completely and accurately, as an artist or careful observer would, is not a natural skill we learn as we grow up.
When we look at an object in a still life painting arrangement, perhaps the first thing we notice is its outline, or general shape. Then we might notice its color and the distribution of light and dark on its surface – the highlights and shadows. Those are the basics. To see beyond the basics requires some “enlightenment”, because we now enter the area which requires a practiced eye. One of the important effects of light being cast strongly on an object that beginning students often have difficulty seeing is the “bounce”, or reflected light. This is the light which strikes a surface near the object and is reflected partially back onto that object. It can be a horizontal surface or a vertical surface. Artists have often intentionally used this light to give their still life subjects greater dimension and impact.
To make this effect more noticeable to students’ eyes, we use a brightly colored cloth under the objects, so that a color is reflected back up onto the still life. Many times, though, even that is not obvious enough to grab their attention. What does work, we have found, is to take a sheet of white paper and block the table cloth color momentarily, removing the reflected color from the still life. When we pull the paper away, you can hear the “ahas” from the class as though a light has been suddenly switched on. It seems like such a simple thing, but it gives all of us great satisfaction to see something new in the familiar – beauty in the mundane. The more we look, the more we see. We wake up to the world. That is the great lesson in trying to improve on our abilities to see more fully the world around us.
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–John and Ann